OK, I'm wandering down the misty cobbles of Memory Lane now...
When I left China, I wasn't entirely ready to leave. My head gave me all sorts of good reasons why it was time to come home. My heart thought that another year or two (or maybe three or four) with my students in China would be rather nice.
My head won, and I packed up all my belongings and said goodbye to my students. They were a sentimental lot, and as a group of about 30 of them waved me off at the station, everybody cried as we sang 'The Last Farewell' (go on, listen to the first verse and tell me you wouldn't have cried!).
I boarded the ship in Hong Kong, and as it turned out all my worldly goods were on the ship with me. I had sent ten boxes by surface mail, and they arrived at my parents' house three days after I did, so must have been in one of those containers.
(Incidentally, there was a severe drought that summer, and water was rationed - I had a card which I had to show when fetching my single bucketful of water from the truck that came round twice a day. Because of this, my mother has always been able to top any of her friends' stories about children bringing piles of dirty laundry home from university. I actually ended up POSTING three boxes of dirty laundry back home from China when I left!)
For about the first fortnight, while enjoying the experience of travelling on a ship, being pampered by the sailors, and stopping off for visits in exotic locations like Singapore and Sri Lanka while containers were offloaded and new loads were taken on, I spent a lot of time thinking mournfully of all the things and all the people that I was going to miss in China.
For the next fortnight, the novelty began to wane as I got bored of spending two or three days at a time at sea with the same group of people (all of whom were actually there to work), with stopovers in between these stretches which seldom lasted more than a few hours. I started to look forward, thinking of all the things and all the people back home that I had missed while I was in China - and I found I couldn't wait to see them again.
It was in this frame of mind, after four weeks at sea, that I arrived at Hamburg. To get to the port of Hamburg, you have to travel a little way up the River Elbe. On the bank of the river is a building with three flagpoles outside. One flies the flag of Hamburg, one the German flag, and the other is spare. Every time a ship comes in or out of the harbour, someone checks to see what flag the ship is flying. The same flag is then raised on the spare flagpole, the relevant national anthem is played across the river on a loudspeaker, and the flag of Hamburg is dipped in greeting.
After three and a half years away from home and a month travelling back on a ship, I was absolutely ripe for this - standing on the deck of the ship, watching the Union Flag slowly rise to the top of the flagpole as the loudspeaker played 'God Save The Queen' was one of the most moving experiences of my life.
If you're ever travelling home after a long period away, I can recommend a sea voyage as the best way to give yourself time to let go of one place and get ready to say hello again to the other.
And do check out the welcome in Hamburg if you get a chance.